Style Icon: Karen O

The first time I saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform in 2004 during their tour for Fever To Tell, I sought out their tour bus, grabbed my electric red lipstick, and scrawled “I ‘heart’ you!” above the grill. The sugar-high giddy energy and inspiring fashion of Karen O during the show probably got me in a wacky tizzy to do such a thing.

About two years later, during their Show Your Bones tour, I did not tag the bus with lipstick, but I did get a great view of the impressive Dia de los Muertos-inspired costume the band’s lead singer donned, pictured above. Made by her BFF, designer Christian Joy, the suit’s florescent tendrils and black light sensitive bones glowed as Karen bounced and giggled on stage. During a decade when outrageous musicians are rare, Karen O’s charisma and style are here to crash the uninspiring khaki-pants party.

Karen O in Christian Joy

Photo: Christian Joy

photo originally appeared in Spin

Contrary to Karen’s current fashion escapades, which usually involve handmade feats of bright and shiny materials, Karen’s style during the band’s first EP and album was more reserved. Inspired by the super cool Karen, I wore a lot of punked-out mini skirts, distressed tees, and brightly colored textured tights during those days. The red boat neck dress with black zipper appliques, shown above, was a particular favorite of mine and moved me to cut the crew necks off my shirts and safety pin on scraps of fabric.

Karen O in Christian Joy

Photos: Christian Joy

Check out the intricate, etching-like screen printing on these fitted sheaths designed by Joy.

Of course, I didn’t have a buddy who also happened to be an awesome and learned designer. Christiane Hultquist, a.k.a. Christian Joy started out as a DIY designer in Brooklyn. While she’s succeeded in having a NYC Fashion Week solo show in 2002 and fashion-as-art shows from LA to Hong Kong, she still keeps an unassuming Etsy shop. Her bold, punk and tribal inspired designs seem to fit Karen’s persona like a studded leather glove.

From about 2006 to today, Karen’s style grew more playful and ostentatious. The outfit in the photo below (Hultquist’s headdress and cape made from bright pastel, hand-shaped cutouts) is one example of these heights. On that look worn by Karen during  2009’s Glastonbury festival, music editor of the Guardian wrote, “Karen O is wearing green leggings and a rather new rave “capey thing” (Vogue if you’re out there, you can have me for 20p a word). Nick and Brian are wearing … does anyone actually care what Nick and Brian are wearing?”

To be fair, the other two “Yeahs” of the band always look sharp and never fade behind their eye-catching frontwoman. Zinner’s and Chase’s simple styles only support her by contrast. At times resembling post-punk versions of 1965 Bob Dylan, the styles of guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase anchor Karen’s wildness to the point that you’re unexpectedly charmed.

Today, I don’t don lamé bodysuits and tinsel headbands, but I’m still a faithful fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Christian Joy, and especially Karen O.  I assume that popular style idols like David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, and Lady Gaga will be referenced in fifty years, and I would bet on Karen O as the overlooked surprise in that cavalcade.

What do you think about Karen O’s style? What other musicians, women especially, do you think will leave a style impression on you?  Also, do you think it’s relevant today for entertainers to have a shocking, signature look?

As you ponder these questions, check out the video below!

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  1. Richard (ModCloth) 06/01/2010 at 2:57 pm #

    I’ve always loved PJ Harvey’s forays into different fashions, as well as Poison Ivy’s (from The Cramps) singular sense of style.

  2. Kristin 06/01/2010 at 3:49 pm #

    You know how many years I’ve been compared to this woman? Since 2003. I don’t know wether to take it as a compliment or hate it! I love Siouxsie, but you already know that!

  3. Sarah 06/01/2010 at 6:38 pm #

    I have this sequined covered asymmetrical jacket. Every time I where it, I feel as if I’m channeling Karen O. She is totally a person I aspire to dress as some days. I think it’s important to have a style icon, and oddly enough, both Karen O and the beautiful Audrey Hepburn keep my style world turning round.

  4. Imogen 06/01/2010 at 7:40 pm #

    After spending my teenage years idolizing Karen O for her fearless sense of style, and after finally getting to see the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s perform live last year, I ran out and purchased a sequine embelished dress, an item of clothing I would have avoided at all costs previously. I supose thats just the affect Karen had on me, and I’m so pleased I took the risk because now I dont know how I could live with out my dress^^

  5. Imogen 06/01/2010 at 7:41 pm #

    Also, I think I would literally kill to own a personalized leather jacket as awesome as hers <3 But i doubt I could get Imogen to fit across it

  6. m.fay 06/01/2010 at 8:21 pm #

    oh, well this could be the best post i have ever read….I LOVE KAREN O. she inspires me to live more dangerously.

  7. Angela (ModCloth) 06/02/2010 at 10:19 am #

    @Imogen- I love your story!

    @m.fay- Thank you!

    It’s cool to read how others are inspired by KO.

  8. Mia 06/02/2010 at 7:01 pm #

    Karen O is so cool, and being compared to her most most definitely a compliment! I have long hair, but I’ve been considering getting my hair cut like hers for a while. Check out Christian Joy’s Where The Wild Things Are costumes if you haven’t seen them already!

  9. Stacy 06/03/2010 at 12:48 am #

    She is my icon as well! And she is an animal on stage. Christian Joy+Karen O= Only the Coolest Shrimp Outfit Ever.

  10. Katie 06/03/2010 at 8:46 am #

    I think Karen O is so incredibly awesome. I love her voice, her attitude and especially…her style. I saw The Yeah Yeah Yeahs live 2 summers ago and they RAWKED! I couldn’t believe all the cool stuff she wore. Even though I could never pull any of it off. Christian Joy makes this cute lobster shirt I like a lot.

  11. Eliza 06/06/2010 at 7:43 pm #

    I hate myself that an immense dislike of “Maps” kept me away from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs so long. Never had the fortune to see them in concert, but even just watching them on Saturday Night Live last season… wow. Karen O is always beeming. If I borrow anything from her, I want that smile, that satisfaction my dreams have all come true.

  12. Shelby 06/07/2010 at 12:21 pm #

    She gives an amazing performance in her shows. Once for Halloween I dressed up as her and created a WHOLE costume inspired by all her various outfits (including creating some boring tights into an outrageous Karen O feel). I even made the cape with the tinsel.

  13. Krysty 06/22/2010 at 1:03 am #

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Karen O – even though I could never pull off the kinds of clothes she wears, but that’s OK. She inspires me to live my life, and speak my mind, and even wear the kinds of clothes that represent me and no one else. That’s what I love about her – she’s not trying to be, or act, or look like anyone else other than her crazy beautiful self.

  14. Kelley 06/22/2010 at 1:45 pm #

    I saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs last year and i want the awesome neon kamono that she was wearing so bad! She is definitly a fashion icon and has somewhat of an impression on my personal style. Another very stylish lady is Hayley Williams. My wardrobe is very infuenced by her style. I love how her clothing is a mix of punk, DIY, and retro.

  15. riah 09/20/2010 at 2:29 pm #

    wow, thank u for this blog! i luv karen o.! i’ve recently started a fashion blog thats pretty much based on what i think karen o would wear! its called allthingscuteandfierce.blogspot. com. another awesome female fashion icon is bjork, she is definitely cute & fierce!!!!

  16. Neon Threads Clothing 01/13/2011 at 4:35 am #

    Amazing! She’s got great style!

  17. sara 01/31/2011 at 7:26 pm #

    where can I find that red boat neck dress with black detail. I love it and I want it so badly!!!

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